(Jan. 31,2011) Egyptians have overcome their fear of the police state. It is a seminal moment in the history of the Arab world’s largest and most influential nation.
The upheaval underscores a grim reality for authoritarian regimes the world over: The electronic dam has burst and with it, their ability to control the flow of information.
There is a direct line between this revolt and the Arab media revolution launched 15 years ago. One might even argue it is the inevitable result. The demand for change has become an electronic virus, seeping into nations through every unblocked pore.
The Mubarak government may have taken the unprecedented step of severing the internet and pulling the plug on cell phone coverage in strategic parts of the country, but anyone with access to a satellite dish — and that’s most Egyptians — has a ringside seat to the live drama playing out on the streets and on TV screens around the world. Inspired, many ordinary Egyptians are leaving the safety of their homes to join the demonstrators.
As recently as the mid-1990s, they might not have even known protests were taking place.
Throughout most of the second half of the 20th century, the Egyptian government had a near-monopoly on the flow of information to its people. So complete was the control that Egyptians celebrated news from the state media of the victory over Israel in the 1967 war, even as the Egyptian air force was being wiped out. In this level of control, Egypt is not alone. Most Saudis didn’t know Iraq had invaded neighboring Kuwait in 1990 because the Saudi state media waited three days to announce the news.
What changed was the arrival of Al Jazeera, the first largely independent pan-Arab satellite channel in 1996. CNN, BBC and Egyptian state TV were already available on satellite, but the former were in English and the latter had no credibility.
Suddenly, Arabs across the region were seeing an aggressive new style of reporting, in Arabic by fellow Arabs, witnessing events long hidden and hearing from figures banned from government TV stations.
Today, there are hundreds of Arab satellite channels representing every political viewpoint, while independent newspapers and websites have sprung up across the region.
Arab journalists who were once mouthpieces for oppressive regimes are today crusading critics. A survey my team carried outtwo years ago found that the vast majority of Arab journalists see creating political and social change as their primary mission. That was underscored in the saturation coverage of Tunisia by the Arab media.
Even if governments could somehow put the journalistic genie back in the bottle, there is the army of media-savvy activists who have seized on tools like blogs, Twitter, Facebook and other forms of instant messaging as weapons — what Egyptians now call “Massbook” — in their battle with entrenched regimes.
Crusading journalists and digitally armed activists. It was a combination lethal to Tunisia’s Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and proving toxic to Hosni Mubarak.
The lightning speed with which the Tunisian revolution spread to the streets of Cairo is evidence that the term “digital revolution” has taken on a whole new meaning in the Middle East. It also underscores the failure of Arab regimes to adjust to this new information reality.
It is no longer possible for a country of 80 million people to go off the grid.
The disarray within Mubarak’s once-powerful Information Ministry, a target of the protesters, is evident in its disjointed response to the rapidly changing events.
The government’s initial efforts to block Facebook and Twitter failed, as it did previously in Tunisia, thanks to the sophisticated anti-censorship tools used by the digital activists, so it resorted to severing most internet connections and cutting most cell phone service to disrupt efforts to organize protests. But it left one internet provider connected, which gave savvy activists a lifeline. In any case, by then it was already too late; plans for the “Friday of Anger” had been laid, the word had gone out.
The government couldn’t even control its own satellite. At one point, it pulled the plug on Al Jazeera’s transmission through Egypt’s Nilesat, one of two major satellites feeding TV channels in the region. But engineers at the Qatar-based channel quickly regrouped, made a technical end-run, and Al Jazeera was back on the Egyptian satellite and on Egyptian TV screens.
State TV, meanwhile, sent several of its most respected anchors on “indefinite leave” because of their sympathies for the protesters. It also sent mixed messages, broadcasting footage of the riots, then announcing the city had calmed, training its cameras on a panoramic view of the city, tilted high to avoid showing the police vehicles in flames right in front of the TV headquarters — being broadcast at that moment on CNN and Al Jazeera.
The fact that this is a revolt being carried live around the world is not lost on the people of Egypt.
“We were so scared yesterday that (we) would be completely disconnected,” tweeted monasosh, an Egyptian blogger who has managed to remain online. “But somehow the world is watching us and it feels great.”
Good news for monasosh and her fellow Egyptians, but potentially bad news for other Arab autocrats whose citizens are already showing signs they may have been infected by that electronic virus of change.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Lawrence Pintak.